Breathe, breathe, and breathe again! My heart raced like I was running a marathon, but I wasn’t. I was dying, gasping for air. Panic swallowed me in a deep dark cloud. There was no one to call out to! I was in a place of anxiousness and fear. My brain chemistry had set off a red alarm that put my body in panic mode.
The first panic attack I can remember occurred at the age of 10. My experience with panic attacks continued as I grew up. I would hyperventilate so much that once when driving on the interstate with my mother sitting in the passenger’s seat, I had to pull over and get a grip. And I was only 17. The old English origin of the word “worry” is wyrgan, which means “to strangle,” and anxiety was choking me with worry.
We all have our reasons to be anxious — family, job, health, and money are enough, but it does not stop there. We have threats of terrorists lurking to attack in both large and small communities. In fact, it appears we cannot hide our anxiety. According to WebMD, 75-90% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
I began to be a frequent flyer to the emergency room at the age of 18. I was certain each time that I was breathing my last breath. The medical staff quickly determined the cause of my problem as anxiety and would hand me a paper bag and say, “Breathe, honey, and relax.” My shaking hands took the bag and began to breathe in and out trying to slow down my breathing. Good grief, it was embarrassing! My doctor just told me I didn’t need to take life so seriously, especially since I was so young. I found myself alone with my problem. I was literally standing outside the hospital with bag in hand.
Experiencing Anxiety as an Adult
Anxiety is a silent killer, because it robbed me of many blessings and kept me from living life the way God wanted me to live. It continued into my adulthood and impacted my body physically. During my stressful, anxious moments, I over-ate and would consume large bags of chips. Anxiety not only impacted my body with weight gain, but with racing heartbeat and trembling hands. My husband and parents stood by with helpful advice but really couldn’t understand what I was experiencing.
I hit rock bottom when I lost my first child. She was born premature and lived three days. I did like most and blamed myself. Grief sucked me up into a tornado of worry and fear. When would my attacks stop robbing me of peace? How was I going to ever live my life when I walked in fear? I was desperate to find relief. I believed in God but was not a devoted follower at the time, and church was not a part of my life. I was relying on just a smidgen of faith from my early childhood. However, when I lost my heart to a little girl, I was directed by her short existence to turn toward my Heavenly Father. Some run away with a broken heart from God, but I didn’t. I chose to turn toward him for comfort. When I turned to Him, my panic attacks became less dramatic and frequent. I wish I could say that those nasty panic attacks left completely, but no, they continued.
In looking back at this season after I lost my child, I realize I wasn’t the only young woman who struggled with panic attacks. In Neil T. Anderson and Rich Miller’s book Freedom From Fear, they state that about 75% of panic disorder sufferers (those who suffer from frequent panic attacks) are women. Most attacks are not caused by physical issues, but to make sure there is no physical cause it is important to see a doctor. I had no physical cause, and I realized that my worries focused around either my thoughts of yesterday’s failures or tomorrow’s expectations.
Some people find that they get panicked about their “today” because their schedule is packed and they can’t do it all. Others worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has a presentation due or deadline for a project, etc. Looking closely into my panic attacks helped me discover what was going on in my head. I realized there was a battle going on and those evil panic attacks were winning.
When those fearful anxious thoughts tried to push my anxiety button, I learned to looked to Scripture. Psalm 34:4-7 (MSG) says:
God met me more than halfway, he freed me from my anxious fears. Look at him; give him your warmest smile. Never hide your feelings from him. When I was desperate, I called out, and God got me out of a tight spot. God’s angel sets up a circle of protection around us while we pray.
As a young woman, and even now as a seasoned woman, I have realized that when I use the Scriptures, God’s knowledge is revealed so I can find the solutions to my daily problems. The words “fear not” (which are significant as I discovered fear is the root of my anxiety) are used 365 times in the Bible. God knew we would need to be told over and over again not to fear because His Word is full of reassurance. When we are under attack, He is the solution! I found that I was allowing the enemy to control my thoughts and my body’s response to those thoughts.
Learning About the Holy Spirit to Help My Anxiety
I didn’t understand that I had the power and authority through Christ to overcome those negative thoughts. Sure, I knew that Christ died on the cross to save me, and I had made a transaction at salvation to repent and turn away from my sins. But when I left the cross promising to live a life for Christ, I didn’t fully understand the power and authority through the Holy Spirit that Christ had given to me. I thought the Holy Spirit existed to prompt my conscience to make good choices so I could live a less sinful life or give me a warm feeling in church. And yes, He does do those things, but He does more. I began to want to know more about the gift of the Holy Spirit, so I prayed and read my Bible to find answers to my questions.
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And He said, ‘Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of His name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: “There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.” You are witnesses of all these things. ‘And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.’ (Luke 24:45-49, NLT)
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit directed men such as Abraham, Moses, Noah, and many more, but the Spirit was not with them all the time because Christ had not died on the cross. The presence of God came in the wind, clouds, fire, and dreams.
After Jesus died to redeem and restore us back into a healed relationship with God, He ascended to heaven but left behind a resource that dwells within us upon conversion and helps us stay connected to God: the Holy Spirit. Think of it this way — the Holy Spirit is like a cell tower that is always on. He assists us in praying to God and receiving His guidance. You stay connected 24/7 to your friends, family, and the world by the use of a technology (cell phones) that most of us don’t fully understand but we use.
Some people excel in the use of it while others learn it at a slower pace. The understanding and the ministry of the Holy Spirit grows when we are willing to pursue God by spending time with Him and reading His Word. Doing these things and acting in obedience to Him produce a natural release of the Holy Spirit in our lives. My anxiety was getting to me even though I had asked God for help. I went back to the Scriptures and saw the same words which declared to me that once a believer I received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It truly takes some people longer to understand something, and I was one of those people. I came to comprehend that the Holy Spirit was a divine gift Christ gave to me in order to restore my life to the original design God created me for and help me live in the way Christ would want me to live.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB)
It was like the lightbulb of truth came on! I was not made for panic attacks and brown bag breathing. Finally I understood it was as the Scriptures declared for my mind was opened to understand His power and authority. In Mike Riches’ book Living Free, he states, “As believing followers of Jesus Christ, we will discover that to be whom we are meant to be, to live the way we are meant to live, and to do what we are meant to do require God’s supernatural power in our lives.”
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8, NLT)
And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. (Luke 9:1, NASB)
Controlling My Attacks With Holy Spirit Power
I discovered I could control my attacks. God didn’t create me to walk around with a paper bag in my hand and to have endless days of sleepless nights. My solution was so simple but complex at the same time. I had to believe it — really believe — that with the Holy Spirit I could win the war in my mind. I started by taking captive every thought (2 Corinthians 10:5). Each time an anxious thought would come, I asked myself, “Would this be a thought from my Heavenly Father or would Jesus say this?”
When I felt my heart racing, I would begin to sing the simple song, “Jesus Loves Me.” I turned my thoughts toward my Creator, and He would calm me down. Many of my attacks came at 3:00 a.m. while I was sleeping, causing me to wake up gasping for air. So I began to use the time to dial up my Heavenly Father in prayer and talk to Him. I would listen for his voice, and I would hear it reminding me how much He loved me. During the day when I would feel a wave of panic, I would sing a praise song or say the name of Jesus out loud, and peace would come. When I was tempted to check on my children after I had already looked in on them, I would pray and peace would come. When I stood before a crowd as a principal of a school, I would smile and pray as I moved forward to speak.
I allowed God to take control of my life instead of the enemy. Satan’s plan was simple — to keep me distracted by my thoughts of fear and worry. Ironically, when I look back to all those moments of anxiety, I cannot tell you the specifics of many of them, so the things in my mind that got my heartbeat and breathing racing were not important and they were aging me! Matthew 6:26-27 says this about worry, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
If you find yourself struggling with the demands of life’s distractions, don’t rush to grab the paper bag to breathe into but stop and breathe in the Holy Spirit that gives you the power and authority to overcome them.
What can you take away from my experience?
- First, believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior. He came to redeem and restore you to the life God created you for.
- Believe that Christ gave you a gift of the Holy Spirit — your lifeline to heaven, available 24/7.
- His Word is full of guidance and answers to all your life issues.
- He has given us the power and authority to stand against the enemy, who wants to make our life full of fear and anxiety.
- Taking captive every thought can set you free.
Want to hear Sheila’s testimony? Tune in to the corresponding podcast on Soundcloud where we explore Sheila’s experience with panic attacks (in Part 1). You don’t want to miss next week where we continue with Sheila and talk about what she learned about tapping into the Holy Spirit’s power to overcome life’s challenges such as anxiety (in Part 2).
In Sheila’s article, she mentions Mike Riches’ book Living Free. Mike Riches is a pastor of a non-denominational church in Gig Harbor, Washington, and is head of the Sycamore Commission, a ministry committed to modeling Christian life and ministry after that of Jesus Christ. Living Free is one of several resources he has authored and is designed to help people know God’s original design when He created us, how Satan has attempted to thwart that design, and how to live “free” and healed — recovering areas of our lives (in terms of our emotions, health, relationships, etc.) that the enemy has stolen from us. If you are interested in learning more about how to live free of bondage and strongholds, click on the link to learn more!
*Updated January 20, 2018.